Wednesday 30 April 2008

"But I've got some lazing to do..."

Every now and then, you need a book that is unashamedly silly. And when you're feline like that (a-ha-ha) you need a book about cats. Obviously.

My personal favourite is on Amazon here - Jeffrey Brown's observations are astute, witty and very catty... So, when Molly Brandenburg offered me a review copy of Everyday Cat Excuses, the only answer I was going to give was "Yes! Yes, cats!" I don't really know how I can give a book review of a book like this. Dostoevsky it ain't, but I rather think old Fyodor would have enjoyed flicking through this book.

Those of us who have owned cats, or currently own cats, know that they're not the most active and servile of creatures. They might be able to recognise their own name, but aren't stupid enough to pay any heedance to it. They know when it's dinner time, and the rest of the itinerary is on their terms. So, if you ask them to do something, it's more or less a given that they'll have an excuse...

And so Molly draws cartoons depicting these excuses. An example is pictured - it's the cartoon which is a great deal more polished than mine! My favourites are the little series of "Because I need to go outside."
"Actually, I need to go inside." "Inside? Craziness - outside for me, please". And so on. (I paraphrase). There is so much to observe in our feline friends. For a novel with a great cat, I recommend Ivy Compton-Burnett's Mother and Son. For an amusing present to a cat lover, do check out either Molly's book, or Jeffrey Brown's (linked to above).

Something properly literary soon, promise!

Tuesday 29 April 2008

If Music Be The Food Of Love...

I am feeling quite inspirationless today (to the extent of making up such words as inspirationless) and am not quite sure what to blog about... Could tell you about my driving lesson, in which I did things like a 'turn in the road' (we don't call 'em three-point-turns anymore) and 'parallel parking' (not sure what I was parallel to, but it certainly wasn't either the car in front or the kerb). When we arrived back at my house, we discovered that one of the front tyres was flat (which explained the odd, urgent motions a cyclist had made on the way) - and so I ended the lesson holding an umbrella over my instructor, whilst he changed the tyre. Our Vicar has repeatedly tried to explain to myself and The Carbon Copy how to change a tyre, but always seemed to choose a day when I was wearing white, and thus not overly eager to be 'hands-on'...

Something I hadn't got around to mentioning yet is that Kirsty tagged me for Six Random Facts about myself - well, I went two better back in May 07, when someone asked me to do Eight Random Facts - see it here. Which got me thinking about music, as that was one of my random facts.

What do you listen to when you read? Some favourite CDs, or the radio? Or do you need silence? Perhaps you read anywhere, with people chat
ting all around you.
I tend to go for quiet,
soothing, beautiful music - though with a singer, rather than classical or instrumental. Usually, like the books I like best, by women. Nothing too distracting, and preferably all by the same artist, so that it can blend into the background and offer no surprises...

I've dotted some of my favourite CDs around this post. Clicking on them should take you to their relevant Amazon page...

Sunday 27 April 2008


I have been having good luck with books recently. You may remember that I impulsively bought Yellow by Janni Visman, after having barcoded it in the Bodleian - based on the blurb and the cover, and the fact that Amazon has lots going for a penny. Well, I couldn't resist - it's now been read, and I can declare it excellent.

Stella is agoraphobic, to the extent that she cannot leave her flat at all. She lives there with her partner, Ivan, and her cat, George. When Ivan moved in, she made three

No stories from the past.
No unnecessary anecdotes.
No questions.

"Suits me fine," he said.

Stella is also neurotic. Not in a Monica-from-Friends-hilarious-way, but in a studied attention to details and fixation with routine. She wears the same colour shoes for months, and the decision to change from blue to red is momentous. As an aromatherapist, she has a steady stream of clients come to her treatment room - all of whom call her Ms. Lewis, and from whom overtures of friendship are unwelcome. Throughout the novel, Stella treats her own and others dilemmas with treatments from the ordered phials in the one metre square cabinet: 'To a glass of water I add five drops of Bach Flower Remedy White Chestnut for "constant worrying thoughts and/or mental arguments".
I note I need to order another bottle.'

One day Ivan is wearing an old gold bracelet with his name on it, and 'True love forever over every single rainbow XXX S.L 1978' inscribed inside. Who is S.L.? They are Stella's initials - they are the initials of her sister, Skye. Whose else could they be? 'Yellow is the colour of gas, of fear, of jealousy.' As her partner, her sister, her new neighbour and even her cat begin to behave strangely, Stella's jealousy and paranoia become deeper and deeper and increasingly damaging. But is there some justification?

Janni Visman's novel is short, but immensely powerful.
The first person narrative is sparse and often detached; the voice of a woman trying to control her worries by ordering them. As a portrait of paranoia, this is intense and affective - gripping and taut, occasionally disturbing but always compelling.

Visman cites Hitchcock's Vertigo as partial inspiration (see a great interview here), but (especially since she trained as a fine artist) this painting, shown alongside the book, could have been made for the book, and was the bookmark I used - Vilhelm Hammershoi's Interior, Sunlight on the Floor 1906.

Saturday 26 April 2008

Page Boy

I had intended to spend my Saturday in an indulgence of writing letters and reading books, but somehow it became a day of cleaning and slumbering... I feel rather like the worst bits of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty rolled into one. So it is with gratitude that I accept Angela's tagging for a meme, which saves me thinking of something myself...

1. Pick up the nearest book
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence
4. Post the next three sentences
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you

Well, what do you think the book nearest to me is? You guessed it - The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. At least I don't have to worry about it having at least 123 pages...

Oh dear. Page 123 doesn't bring out the best in the Mitford clan...

[Letters from Diana to Deborah, 2nd June 1938]
"Last night the Fuhrer was talking about which of us was going to the Parteitag, and he says he specially wants you to go. Isn't it wonderful. I told what a marvellous rider you are and he thinks you are so beautiful and wants you to see the Parteitag while you are young."

Oh, Mitfords...

Friday 25 April 2008

More Mitfords...

I couldn't leave it just at the Mitford letters, now, could I?

Having fallen down before Deborah in a frenzy of adulation,
I had to seek out Counting My Chickens... and other home thoughts by Debo, or the Duchess of Devonshire as such as I should call her. It's a collection of all sorts of writings Deborah has published in newspapers and periodicals over the years (most notably the British Goat Society Yearbook 1972); lots of short articles and thoughts, something to dip in and out of.

Deborah isn't a natural prose writer, not in the way Nancy was. She frequently claims not to be able to read, let alone write (though Charlotte Mosley notes in The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters 'Diana believed that unlike most people who pretend to have read books that they have not, Deborah pretended not to have read books that she had'.) Counting My Chickens, accordingly, is no sweeping grand narrative - but in the vignettesque pieces, Deborah demonstrates a gently witty and loveable nature. Who can fail to adore her when, asked to choose her ten books for a Trans Siberian Railway (!), she writes 'My third book is Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and the Water. I am sorry to say I have not read it...'

Most of Counting My Chickens is little thoughts, connected to Chatsworth or the countryside - her opinions are sometimes applaudable, sometimes baffling (why doesn't she like female weather forecasters?), but always entertaining or interesting. She has a habit of writing a statement, and simply putting 'Good.' as the next sentence. What a flood of ink could be saved if other authors used rhetoric so simple!

To be honest, Deborah Mitford could have written her views concerning the telephone directory, or a list of her favourite three digit numbers, and I'd have lapped it up. She is, after all, more or less like a sister to me now. A somewhat older sister, it must be said, but a sister nonetheless. I wonder what on earth she'd make of that - seeing as I am vegetarian, never milked a cow, and have been known to say 'talking with' when I mean 'talking to'...

My next Mitford read will be Hons and Rebels by Jessica - a few of you rightly said that I should read more by or about Decca before judging her, so I shall give her the benefit of the doubt...!

By the way, I'm keeping a list of the Alphabet Meme as it goes on through the blogs, so if you've done one, just let me know...

Thursday 24 April 2008


I am forlorn. There is no other word for it. Having started it in November, I am drawing to the final pages of The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. Only two sisters are still alive, and I have lived every period of their lives. It is rare, I must confess, that I want a book to continue when I've come to the end. Almost always I am happy to finish and move onto the next, even if I've really enjoyed reading the book. It is astonishing that an 800+ page book should leave me wanting more.

When I started The Mitfords in November, I had heard of Nancy, Jessica and Diana, though got them a little mixed up, and had no idea about
the rest of them. I knew they were fairly posh, and had written some books between them, of which I had only read The Pursuit of Love and letters between Nancy and Heywood Hill. Oh, those early days of reading the letters, when I had constantly to flick to the front, to work out which one Pamela was and whether or not she was older than Diana, and whether or not Jessica was married yet and if Unity was two or twelve or twenty. How far away such ignorance now seems! I can name them all in order of births and deaths, state political leanings; spouses; sororal favourites and antagonisms; every bit of their characters which could be revealed in these letters.

As Jo Rowling says: 'A novelist would never get away with inventing this: a correspondence spanning eight decades, written from locations including Chatsworth and Holloway Prison, between six original and talented women who numbered among their friends Evelyn Waugh, Maya Angelou, J. F. Kennedy and Adolf Hitler'. As a social document alone, this book would be one of the most important of recent years. Throw in six unique, unmistakable characters, gifted women with affection and great humour - The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters is unquestionably the best book I've read thus far in 2008, and I can't see it being bettered before the year is out.

It is impossible to read about Nancy, P
amela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah without emerging with favourites. Seeing their true selves exposed and shared, I couldn't help form opinions and imaginary kindred spirits. So, I did warm to - no, strike that, adore - Deborah (indisputably the heroine of the book) for her warmth, lovingness, refusal to adopt a political viewpoint which would damage her sisterly relationships. Witty, too, without the barbs some of her sisters planted. Pamela is adorable too, forever known as Woman for her unfeminine qualities, but she is the least garralous sister. The only sister I couldn't stand by the end of the collection was Jessica - I think it unacceptable to cut a sister from your life because they have different political leanings. Extreme ones, on both sides, yes - but the ties of siblingship are above such things. And a minor quibble over a scrapbook was being dregged up by Jessica FIFTEEN YEARS after the event happened. For goodness' sake, woman!

Such are the strong reactions The Mitfords provokes, you see... and anyone else reading it will form different alliances, I daresay. Hopefully anyone staying away from this collection because of the Mitford reput
ation will be swayed. Yes, they were rich, and sometimes a little eccentric - their sense of humour and catchphrases take some getting used to, but isn't that true of all families? I long, now, to say "do admit!" when I mean "you must admit that's funny", or "screamed" for "was amused". Their range of nicknames is baffling, but delightfully so - and, once I got the hang of it, it felt rather like I'd been invited into the family group. Not quite into the group, actually, of course - but with the privileged position of benevolent eavesdropping...

Utterly fascinating, endlessly moving (I gasped aloud at a miscarriage one sister suffered) this collection of letters is a treasure chest and a social document; a comedy and a history; unavoidably brilliant without the least pretension to being anything other than the letters between six sisters.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

In theory...

Isn't it nice when something spreads across the internet?

When I listed my A-Z favourite authors, with accompanying books, I hoped a few people would get puzzling over their response - and, to my gratification, quite a few of you did. So thought I'd point you all in the various directions -

Sibylle (shares a massive seven authors with me...)


Have I missed anyone?

Was considering compiling a list of authors chosen, but you can go and have a look yourselves. I think George Eliot wins out, by virtue of her unusual 'E-' surname - though I was expecting more Austen. Isn't it great that there are so many favourite authors out there, in the blogosphere? Lots of names to investigate.

In other news, I passed my Driving Theory Test this morning - hurray! I now have two years to pass my driving test proper, and might need all of that time... But at least I now know that a horse might go in any direction at a roundabout, and that a mobile 'phone increases the risk of an accident by four times. Goodness knows what calamities a horse on a mobile 'phone would cause...

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Reduced Billybob

A very fun evening at the theatre, watching The Reduced Shakespeare Company perform The Complete Works of Shakespeare in 97 minutes. Now, if only they'd been around while I was doing my revision.for finals...

This post contains quite a few spoilers, both of Shakespeare and how they used Shakespeare, so read on only with the greatest caution...

Great fun. We saw Hamlet in a few minutes, complete with sock puppetry, shark and Ophelia's id being acted out by the audience waving their hands rhythmically; the Histories were performed as a game of American Football; the Comedies were rolled into one performance ("Which is the one which starts with a ship wreck, has identical twins, and ends with a wedding?" "All of them.")

Since the troupe was a three-man-band, all the female parts were (appropriately enough) played by men. Unlike the Renaissance stage, they were taken by one man in a bad wig, who screamed a lot. Actually... ahem. Hamlet's Ghost held up a sign saying 'Boo'; one man played the balconey in Romeo & Juliet; Juliet failed to kill herself because her sword was a retractable stage one; Othello had toy boats tied around his neck, as they'd misunderstood the meaning of 'Moor'...

Oh, it was great. And not the least informative.

Monday 21 April 2008

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice was given to me as a Christmas present by my friend Lorna, who'd read and loved it. I passed it on to Our Vicar's Wife, who also loved it, and has passed it on to a lady in our village in Somerset... isn't it great when a recommendation goes along a chain like this? It's only fair that I pass it on to all of you, too.

Please don't let that fact that it was a Richard & Judy Book Club choice put you off. They choose some fine books. And, more importantly, don't be discouraged by the cover, which falls firmly into 'chick lit' territory. Today's sketch shows the importance of distrusting cover images...

Right. Now we can consider the book itself. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is set in the 1950s. Penelope lives in one of those crumbling old mansions only found in literature, and is (of course) the daughter of a beautiful widow, and has a mildly ec
centric brother, obsessed with music. She meets Charlotte at a bus stop, and is invited, out of the blue, to visit Charlotte's aunt (not, we must note, the same as Charley's Aunt) who lives in a book-crammed room, and is dictating her own book to Charlotte. Charlotte is the driving force of this novel, though we follow Penelope's viewpoint - in Charlotte, Rice has enfused such an energy, such a good-natured whirl of sophisticated absurdity and capriciousness. She reminded me of Miss Hargreaves, not in sharing character traits, but in her unique energy; in the unwearying delight it is to read about her.

Penelope and Charlotte dash from socialite parties to the aunt'
s flat to the disintegrating mansion - sharing crushes, aspirations, occasionally squabbling - all with a pace and joy that is contagious. Rice includes a couple of significant plot twists, which is all to the good of the novel's structure, but when she produces characters so brilliant, it scarcely matters what the plot is.

The debts to Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith are there, and cheerfully confessed to in the blurb, but this novel restored my faith in the modern novel. I've read a fair few good modern novels, but all of them were sombre much of the time. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is the first unapologetically amusing and incandescently happy novel I've come across in ages.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Books - What Books?

I've just come back from visiting The Carbon Copy in Bristol, which was great fun. What is more, I went with the firm resolve to buy nothing. Well, as little as possible. Certainly not 2 DVDS, a CD and 7 books...


But, in my defence, Colin did take me to Fopp (an amazing discounted entertainment shop) and
Amnesty Books, a bookshop with the sublime combination of cheap and good and charitable. So I didn't spend much. But indisputably more than nothing. The films were An Affair To Remember (with Cary Grant & Deborah Kerr) and Brief Encounter, as someone borrowed my copy then moved to Japan, chortle.

And the books?

The Brontes Went to Woolworths - Rachel Ferguson : I've been keeping an eye out for this one for a few years, actually, and especially since Karen wrote about it, though I can't find her exact post now. Surreal, amusing, domestic = my kinda thing

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby : read the book for Book Group a while ago, saw the film the other day - liked both, and wanted a copy of my own.

Yellow - Janni Visman : this one actually came through the post. I barcoded a copy of it in the Bodleian the other day, was struck by the stark cover, and enticed by the blurb. "Yellow is the colour of gas, of fear, of jealousy". Domesticity and paranoia...

Private Papers - Margaret Forster : at 20p, this is an author I can afford to explore

The Night Watch - Sarah Waters : enjoyed Affinity when I read it some years ago, and £3 for a new hardback.... it would have been rude to say no.

Bobbin Up - Dorothy Hewitt : all this Virago anniversary hullabaloo has made me look more closely at the old bottle green ones. Anybody heard of this one?

he Dark is Bright Enough - Christopher Fry : a playwright I've been meaning to read. At 20p...

Discipline - Mary Brunton : a contemporary of Jane Austen, I read Brunton's novel a couple of years ago, from the library. Loved it, and been keeping an eye out for a cheap copy.

All in all, a successful splurge!

Friday 18 April 2008

A-Z Favourites

You know how sometimes an idea will pop into your head, and you can't ignore it? I imagine that's how Einstein and Newton and... and those other science guys... felt. On a similar, potentially less significant, scale, I have been pondering - if I had to pick a favourite author for each letter of the alphabet, and the accompanying novel, how would that go?

Expecting me to tri-sect the angle, were you? (I maintain that this is easily performed with a ruler, but The Carbon Copy and Our Vicar, both holders of Maths degrees, assure me that it's trickier than that) Sadly not. But this might be fun. And once you've read mine, I'm sure you won't be able to resist making your own...
And I should have included? Some you're surprised to see? Let me kn

AUSTEN, Jane - Pride and Prejudice
BAKER, Frank - Miss Hargreaves
CROMPTON, Richmal - Frost at Morning
DELAFIELD, E. M. - The Provincial Lady
ELIOT, George - The Mill on the Floss
FADIMAN, Anne - Ex Libris
GIBBONS, Stella - Cold Comfort Farm

HANFF, Helene - 84, Charing Cross Road
I....... haven't read anything by anyone whose name begins with I... not even Ishiguro.
JANSSON, Tove - A Win
ter Book
KENDAL, Felicity - Wh
ite Cargo
vid - The Haunted Woman
MILNE, A. A. - It's Too Late Now
NOBLE, Barbara - Doreen
OLIVIER, Edith - The Love Child
PARK, Ruth - The Harp in the South
Q....... there must be some 'Q' authors out there? Q himself, I suppose.
ROWLING, J. K. - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
SMITH, Dodie - I Capture the Castle

THWAITE, Ann - A. A. Milne : His Life
U....... guess what?

VOLTAIRE - Candide
WOOLF, Virginia - Mrs. Dalloway

X....... who'd have thought?
YOUNG, Angela - Speaking of Love
Z....... should have seen that coming...

Thursday 17 April 2008

Dear Dictionary

It's been a while since I did a Booking Through Thursday, usually because Thursday happens without me noticing... cunning, but true. Today was spent cataloguing auction catalogues (my first Full Level Cataloguing, and very attractive things to flick through, filled with paintings I can't afford and odd owl figurines I wouldn't want to) - then I went to a cake party (yum) and finally my Church Small Group had dinner together. The only thing I read today (aside from the auction catalogues) was my driving theory book... oh dear. Will tuck myself up with a good book soon.

Before I do, will turn my attention to this week's question:
I’ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before.
I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

Dictionaries! When I did my English Language section of my degree, one of my coursework pieces was on dictionaries - specifically the illustrative quotations which accompany definitions. It sounds dull... but was absolutely fascinating, and really fun. Sadly, when my computer decided that its hard drive was a little blasé and wiped itself, my essays disappeared. And that was one of the ones I hadn't printed, except to hand in to The Powers That Be, so I shall never again know as much about dictionaries as I did then.

What I do know, however, is that I have a dictionary to hand whenever I'm reading a book. Well, not to hand - but on the shelf, and it is referred to often. sometimes offers a hand, but there's nothing quite like skimming through a real live dictionary, and having a sentence make sense.

Oddly, and irritatingly, there are certain words which I read over and over again, and look up over and over again, and which refuse to stick in my mind. Of course, none spring to mind now... but for a long time 'importunate' and 'sedulous' were two of these. They'd crop up time and again in books I read, and every time I was stumped... now, eventually, I know what they mean. But then there are words like 'vicariously', the meaning of which I always *thought* I knew, but turns out I didn't...

Howsabout you? Do you ignore the words you don't understand, or immediately scurry away to a dictionary, or note it down for later? Or are you just better than me, and haven't encountered an unfamiliar word for years?!

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Not Just William

I've been meaning to write about Richmal Crompton for absolutely ages, and have finally been propelled into doing so by the Family Roundabout book group I went to last week. You may well know Richmal Crompton as the author of the 'William' (or 'Just William') stories, written between 1922 and 1969, when she died. I, like many others, devoured these hilarious books as a child (alongside Thomas Henry's brilliant illustrations - mine very much with apologies to him. Though mine looks rather more like a Chinese woman...) What I didn't know until 2002 was that Richmal Crompton had written over 40 novels for adults. Scandalously, Family Roundabout is the only one in print (step forward Persephone Books - and it was actually via Crompton that I found this publishing house).

Richmal Crompton's novels have fans across the internet - notably Elaine, who has joyfully borrowed many of the thirty or so Crompton novels I've managed to find, and who wrote about RC here - but she remains famous primarily for the William books she considered 'potboilers'. These come under the category of "difficult to expla
in how wonderful they are", so I can only say that they spark booklust in the unlikeliest candidates, and nothing else can quite satiate the thirst for another Crompton novel. Their scarcity may be frustrating, but hunting down the elusive novels is quite a fun pasttime...

Crompton's novels are all quite similar, and there is some overlap. Children grow up togeth
er; people in a village exist alongside each other; parents are disobeyed or thwarted; beautiful people take advantage of others; wise, older women dispense advice to all and sundry; unhinged authors write dozens of romance novels whilst being wholly unconnected with reality... not all of these appear in every novel, of course, but they represent the mixture of fun and pathos which characterise Crompton's books. She is perenially the author of William, and cannot avoid that tone forever (one of my favourite quotations concerns an author, in Family Roundabout: 'Of his own novels there was no trace [in his room]. Their absence impressed his modesty on people, and Mr. Palmer spent a lot of time and thought impressing his modesty on people.') - but this humour is balanced with characters who experience understated struggles or genuinely touching revelations. I can't do them justice - the only thing you can do is read one. I can't encourage you to do so enough.

Shall I pick one for you? Ok. Frost at Morning. Let's put it in the 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. If you prefer the easy route,
or don't like secondhand books (is this possible?) then go for the one in print, Family Roundabout, but I don't think it's the best. It's in Frost at Morning (1950) that Crompton demonstrates her most subtle understanding of children and their vulnerable position in families; it also has her most amusing of the crazed-authors, in Mrs. Sanders, who dictates several novels at once, and muddles them all. A group of children are gathered as companions for a Vicarage daughter - their personalities shine through the opening section, as they play with modelling clay. Angela, Philip, Monica and Geraldine are all immediately unique personalities, and continue to be so as we witness them separately and together throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Read it, you won't regret it. Lots available at abebooks here, and Amazon here.

Oh, and special mention to Our Vicar's Wife, who took these photos from my RC pile in Somerset.

Monday 14 April 2008

Sketchy Behaviour

I decided to triple my Bijou Prizette, since there is a little stockpile of previous sketches on my desk, and thus there are three lucky winners of Stuck-in-a-Book doodlings. Glad they're going to a good home - so, without further ado (drumroll, please)...

Book Reviews Made Easy goes to - Linda!

Karen at Cornflower was next - and I thought this one was particularly appropriate, drawn for the day when I met Karen in Magdalen, almost a year ago:

Catherine at Juxtabook was the third winner - I chose this one for her:

Ladies, if I don't already have your address, please email it to me at Congratulations!

Sunday 13 April 2008

The Red Leather Diary Book Trailer

The Book Trailer to go with today's book review.

Who is Florence Wolfson?

What do you really expect to find when looking through a skip?

Probably not the inspiration for a book, unless that book happens to be "Travels With My Refuse" or "Binbags I Have Known". Lily Koppel, a young journalist at the New York Times, did rather better - on 6th October 2003, all sorts o
f old trunks were thrown away from where they'd been languishing in unclaimed storage. Spotting an opportunity... no, wait. "I felt a pang of longing. I was seized by the impulse that at this moment, nothing mattered but seeing what lay inside the trunks." Well, what lay inside one of them was an old red leather diary. A Milestone Five Year diary, 1929-1934. The property of one Florence Wolfson, given to her on her fourteenth birthday.

Every single day had an entry. These ranged from the trivial - 'Played piano for Mother this evening & enjoyed myself enormously' - to the deeply emotive: 'It's really pitiful that I love George so much - I'm absolutely nothing in his hands' and more or less everything in between. Most significantly, it was true. Even if Florence's was the most mundane of lives (and it was not), its detailed preservation for so many decades makes it a significant social document.

What is it which moves Florence's diary to a higher level? Perhaps it is mostly that Florence is still alive. A nonagenarian, married for 67 years to a boy she met in her diary days, she was tracked down by Lily Koppel, and writes in the Foreword that "a forgotten chunk of my life, full of adolescent angst and passion, is handed
to me... my striving, feeling, immature self [seen] through my now elderly eyes". (I've changed the second person to the first person - the original is perhaps symptomatic of this disconnection Florence Wolfson, now Howitt, must feel after so many years distance).

The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Journal is certainly not simply the publication of Florence's childhood journal. Lily uses the diary as a basis, and, having also spoken at length to Florence and surviving family & friends, constructs a third person narrative of the years 1929-34. Florence
did, after all, only write a sentence or two per day. Koppel favours quite an arty prose - people say things with 'wide gray eyes void of emotion'; things don't happen immediately, rather 'she didn't have time to take a sip before they pulled up at the canopy of the forty-one-story white granite Hotel Pierre looking down on the Plaza'. Difficult to demonstrate Koppel's writing style without artificially isolating it, but hopefully you get the picture. Alongside this, Florence's diary entries (which are cited between paragraphs, an ongoing thread of the primary material) are starkly factual and unadornedly expressive: 'Planning a play on Wordsworth - possibilities are infinite'. These two styles intertwine, and play out against each other to mutual benefit, I think. It is Florence's voice I cherish in The Red Leather Diary, yet her distinctive day-to-day accounts are too sparse to exist without Koppel's elaboration.

For me, the idea behind the book was enough to make me want to read it.
A rediscovered journal; an encounter between young journalist and nonagenarian (which, to my mind, is the most interesting section of an interesting book). These are events to be treasured, and worth a book, whatever the youthful Florence was like. What makes her journal, her biography, her narrative so compelling is her character. Not always likeable, she is nonetheless a creative spirit - writing, painting, loving. She presents mature philosophical reflections even while she declares every crush to be a great love affair and bewails the strictures imposed by her parents. The Red Leather Diary is an honest portrayal of teenagerdom in an evolving world, but by showing Florence approaching the end of her life too, it is a true narrative of reflection and change. You couldn't make it up.

Friday 11 April 2008

Year One Book Reviews

As promised, the first year of book reviews is posted below! From now on there will be a link in the left-hand column. Thanks so much, Ber, for asking whether sketches would be treated with a similar post - I hadn't thought of it, but will get onto it soon...

Speaking of sketches, thought I'd give away a very little birthday present - I'll pop the 'Book Reviews Made Easy' sketch in the post to someone, as a souvenir. If you'd like it, just comment in the comments - shall we say a couple of days to enter? It's only, as Elaine at Random Jottings would say, a Bijou Prizerette.

Have just made a coconut cake, which can be considered a birthday cake...

Year One Book Reviews

Baker, Frank - Miss Hargreaves
Bennett, Alan - The Uncommon Reader
Brittney, Lynn - Christine Kringle
Burney, Frances - Evelina
Carr, J. L. - A Month In The Country
Chatto, Beth and Christopher Lloyd - Dear Friend and Gardener
Comyns, Barbara - Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
Delafield, E. M. - The Provincial Lady
Dickens, Monica - One Pair of Feet
Dostoevsky, Fyodor - The Eternal Husband
Fowler, Karen Joy - The Jane Austen Book Club
Gaarder, Jostein - The Christmas Mystery
Gaskell, Elizabeth - Cousin Phillis
Gillard, Linda - A Lifetime Burning
Gordon-Cumming, Jane - A Proper Family Christmas
Hartley, Jenny - Reading Groups
Hartley, L. P. - Simonetta Perkins
Hosseini, Khaled - The Kite Runner
Jansson, Tove - A Winter Book
Jansson, Tove - The Summer Book
Jerome, Jerome K. - Three Men in a Boat
Lawson, Mary - Crow Lake
Leigh, Mike - Abigail's Party
McEwan, Ian - On Chesil Beach
Milne, A. A. - It's Too Late Now
Mitford, Nancy - The Pursuit of Love
Myers, Elizabeth - A Well Full of Leaves
Olivier, Edith - The Love Child
Penney, Stef - The Tenderness of Wolves
Rowling, J. K. - The Harry Potter series
Sackville-West, Vita - All Passion Spent
Struther, Jan - Mrs. Miniver
Thorton, Rosy - Hearts and Minds
Tomalin, Claire - Katherine Mansfield : A Secret Life
Wallace, Danny - Yes Man
Wigfall, Clare - The Loudest Sound and Nothing
Young, Angela - Speaking of Love
Various - Man Proposes

Thursday 10 April 2008

Happy Birthday to me!

It was on April 10th a year ago, in the throes of Finals revision, that I impulsively decided to start writing a literary blog. I was immersed in Middle English (through no choice of my own) and needed a window into kinder literature; books on which I would not be tested. Though I did have some people to share book loves with, I knew there must be even more out there. And perhaps even some people who might want to know my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About...

That was the sketch from my very first entry - and it is more appropriate than ever.

It's been such a joy to have you all come by here over the past year. I don't think Stuck-in-a-Book will ever bring in thousands (I've trotted along at more or less the same, very nice, number of visitors for the past six months or so) but I've made so many friends amongst you. I shan't name you, but you know who you all are, I hope.

It's been a fun year, one of much change in my life - here's to Year Two!

As a birthday present to you all, and to myself, I've collected all the posts which are specifically book reviews, so that they can be found easily... rather than clutter up the column at the side, I shall instead place a link under the 'Home...' bit. That will link to a post which, in turn, links to all the reviews. Look out for it in the next couple of days!

Wednesday 9 April 2008

More Cold Comfort Farm

I'm just back from a very enjoyable meet-up in London with some bookish people, more on that in the near future. Today, I just couldn't leave you mystified as to my opinions concerning Ms. Gibbons and her Farm of Cold Comfort. So interesting to read the views of others before I throw my own out there, must try that again some time.

And what an interesting disparity there is amongst you! Some love; some loathe; some fairly indifferent. Well, it's time to nail my colours to the mast - I love, love, love Cold Comfort Farm and think it's in the top ten funniest books I've ever read. Quite a bold statement to make, and knowing that lots of you have already read it, I probaly have to justify my position... I'll do my best. But I think humour in a book is the most difficult thing to define, encapsulate or explain. Why do I find something funny? Goodness knows. And trying to work out why something is funny kills the humour. Oh well. I'll do my best...

I read Cold Comfort Farm in January 2004, and re-read it last week for Book
Group - what had been enjoyed at 18 was delighted in at 22. Perhaps my pleasure will go up in four-yearly increments, leaving me in delirium by the time I'm 98. What made the most difference, I think, is that I have read some Lawrence, some Hardy, some interwar psychoanalytical novels in the interrim. For Cold Comfort Farm is pastiche on every page - mostly, apparently, of Mary Webb, whom I have not read - and not a word is intended to be taken seriously.

Ironically, Cold Comfort Farm is both pastiche and wholly unlike any other book in the world. It couldn't be. Flora Poste, the chic London 'heroine', finds herself orphaned and decides to live with a relative. She tries several, including the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, albeit reluctantly: ' "because highly sexed young men
living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben, and it would be such a nuisance. And my cousin's name, remember, is Judith. That in itself is most ominous. Her husband is almost certain to be called Amos; and if he is, it will be a typical farm, and you know what they are like." ' It is this sense that Flora is walking into a cliche - which is evident even if one has never touched a rural novel of the type being satirised - which characterises the whole situation, and the rest of the novel. She breezes into Cold Comfort Farm, and encounters every type of absurd, farcical and outlandish character imaginable. And I loved every one of 'em.

90 year old Adam, who cares only for his cows Feckless, Aimless, Graceless and Pointless; over-sexed Seth who is perpetually undoing shirt buttons and believes women only want "yer blood and yer breath"; Mr. Mybug who
sees Flora's revulsion towards him as 'inhibitions' and claims Branwell Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights; preacher Amos who doesn't plan his sermons but "I allus knows 'twill be summat about burnin'..."; most famously Aunt Ada Doom, confined to her room, who once "saw something nasty in the woodshed". And a host of others, all of whom are keen to impress on Flora that "there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort".

In response to Angela's comment yesterday, I do think the characters are supposed to be cartoonish - or absurd, anyway. It is the clash of their melodramatic sayings and Flora's unflustered sense which gave me the moments of greatest mirth. For example, this exchange between Flora and Cousin Judith:

Judith had sunk into a reverie.
'Curtains?' she asked, vacantly, lifting her magnificent head. 'Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude.'

'I'm sure it is; but do you think I might have them washed, all the same?'

Flora's tidy dismissal of the rural histrionics would be callous and arrogant in real life, but real life is not something which impinges on Cold Comfort Farm. Self-confidence propels Flora through solving all the Starkadder dilemmas, even the domineering matriach Ada Doom, whose only defence tactics are thwacking people with Cowkeepers' Weekly Bulletin and Milk Producers' Guide.

I find Cold Comfort Farm a hilarious romp from beginning to end, as well as an example of brilliantly measured and controlled writing, but I can quite see it's a novel which is either hit or miss. Those who haven't read it, do give it a go - if, after 40 pages, you don't love it then you never will. If you do, you always will.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Cold Comfort Farm : Thoughts?

I am more exhausted than I can express - not sure I have fully recuperated - and have only energy for a sentence or two... I've just re-read Cold Comfort Farm and had Book Group on it, but before I tell you what I thought... what do you think??

Let me know, then I'll see how we match up...

Monday 7 April 2008

The Book Quiz

Back from a lovely time in Snowdonia, where it snowed and was unutterably beautiful. Reminded me of Psalm 95 - specifically: "In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Come let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker."

Consequently I am rather sleepy - walking and playing and praying and travelling have taken it out of me. So I shall just point you in the direction of a great BBC quiz, and shall duck when those of you who aren't from the UK realise that you can't watch The Book Quiz. In an age when mass media is accused of dumbing down, often quite rightly, it is nice to see a literary quiz - and, what's more, a very tricky one. See this week's episode here, if you're in the UK, and see if you can do better than me.

The rounds involve identifying opening lines of novels; poet's r
eading their own poetry; picture clues for a book; quickfire questions, each interlinking; thirty seconds or so to name as many examples as possible of, say, George Eliot novels. The team got one for that - Middlemarch. Go on, how many can you get in thirty seconds? Shamefully, I managed three - and none of them were the one I've read. Pressure!

Good fun, very challenging, and covers an enormous range of literature. Well done, BBC.

In other culture news, I spent this evening pretending to be Doctor Who for a Social Sciences Library introductory video...

Friday 4 April 2008

Thrown To The Woolfs

Today's Woolf-pun wasn't my own invention, though a trawl through past posts on Woolf will reveal quite a medley of 'em - as does today's sketch, which is once more recycled. What can I say, I'm fond of it. And I'm also fond of Virginia Woolf, always on the look out for other things to read by and about her.

Can't remember where I first saw Thrown To The Woolfs by John Lehnmann, but I have a feeling it was mentioned in Hermione Lee's exhaustive biography Virginia Woolf - it appealed immediately; an account by Lehmann of being manager and later partner of Hogarth Press. He worked there between 1931 and 1946, with a sizeable gap in the middle - both chunks of time there, totalling almost eight years, ended in a rift with Leonard Woolf.

Although it is Woolf, V. who sold this title to me, Woolf, L. takes more central stage. Not in Lehmann's opinion, certainly, but rather in the length of time spent together and consequent impact on Lehmann's life. Like almost everyone else who has documented meeting Virginia, Lehmann was entirely bewitched by her, both as a person and a writer. He describes reading her final novel, Between The Acts, in manuscript: 'It was a thrilling experience, and I was deeply moved. It seemed to me to have an unparalleled imaginative power, to be filled with a poetry more disturbing than anything she had written before, reaching at times the extreme limits of the communicable'. She herself died believing it to be "too silly and trivial", but in her mental state also called To The Lighthouse 'inconceivably bad'. It is a further tragedy that one of the century's greatest writers died believing her work to be awful.

So, though Virginia was undoubtedly Lehmann's preferred Woolf, it was Leonard who dominated the running of the Hogarth Press. The Press was important to bo
th Woolfs - Lehmann describes it being treated 'as if it were the child their marriage had never produced' - but Leonard was far more concerned with the managerial side. He was notoriously parsimonious, going into a rage if a halfpenny could not be accounted for in, er, accounts. Thrown To The Woolfs, as the title suggests, does not tell a wholly happy tale, and it was (Lehmann suggests) Leonard's over-bearing attitude, especially regards vetoing authors Lehmann wished to publish, which led to the eventual break up of their partnership. Much of the third section of this book is taken up with settling scores - quoting from Leonard's autobiography and then refuting and repudiating. Though the final paragraph begins 'it is absurd, and deleterious, in one's later ages, to harbour enduring resentments about the struggles and tribulations of one's younger career' - but this feels a little like lip service to good nature. The tone becomes a trifle bitter, with light coming only in references to Virginia and other authors about whom he is passionate.

Despite these unresolved squabbles, Thrown To The Woolfs is a well-written and interesting account of a unique viewpoint on the Woolfs, and as such is well worth seeking out. Just don't expect Happy Families all round.

By the by, I'm off to Snowdonia for a few days - see you when I get back!

Wednesday 2 April 2008

The Yellow Wallpaper

Two of the least successful advertising campaigns imaginable, there...

Sorry, starting in a frivolous mood. It shan't persist, promise.
I've got this bug that's going round (isn't there always one going round?) and spent much of the day in bed - what better, thought I, than The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? When I mentioned it the other day, there was quite a response from you guys telling me to drop everything and read it (including Angela, who writes about the book here). I'm nothing if not obedient...

Wow. I don't know whether to call The Yellow Wallpaper a novel or a short story, probably the latter, but whatever it is: wow. What an effect, and what writing.

Sorry, I appear to be dissolving into cheerleaderdom - but sometimes a work is
written so excellently that no other response is possible.

An unnamed woman is suffering from a nervous complaint ("nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression") and sent to rest in a rented house, while her own (and her physician husband's) is being repaired. She is given the large old nursery, at the top of the house, which has windows on all sides and is covered in patterned, yellow wallpaper. Her reaction to this wallpaper is measured and aesthetically based, at first:
'I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide - plunge off at outrageous angles, destory themselves in unheard of contractions. The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.'

There are already hints of extremity - the suicide metaphor; the intense description of the colour. As the story continues, the heroine becomes increasingly obses
sed by the wallpaper - trying to understand the pattern, and whatever may be secreted behind it.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman subtly portrays the woman's plight through a naive and confused first person voice, and sublimation of her depression into obsession with the wallpaper. Many now think the story depicts post-natal depression ('Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.') and it does so extremely sensitively. Deservedly a classic, The Yellow Wallpaper makes subtle mastery seem easy - but was almost certainly far from it.

It's great to have this story in one of those beautiful Virago Modern Classics editions, but sadly it comes with an appalling afterword by Elaine R. Hedges. Hedges takes what is a poignant and deep example of sensitive feminist writing, and tries to turn it into the most militant variety. The sort which throws around terms like "marriage institution" and claims that no woman has ever voluntarily entered marriage, and all men seek to control and destroy women. She crushes all the beauty of Perkins Gilman's story, and I found the whole Afterword belittled post-natal depression and insulted those who suffer from it, as though it were not significant enough an issue to which to devote a narrative. Tsk.

But - to end on a positive note - what a story. Thank you for pushing it to the top of tbr pile, folks.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

What day is it, again?

Got something rather fun in my inbox today... took me a while to... well, you'll see:

Dear Mr Thomas,

My name is Alexander Garner, and I am the chief submissions editor for
Woo Hoo Magazine. A recent survey of our readers indicated that, and I
quote, "they only read it for the articles", and as we always listen
carefully to our consumers we are always on the lookout for new and
exciting writing talent. To this end, I was gratified to recently find your
blog, "Stuck in a Book". Literary material is always of interest to our
distinguished customers, and I am therefore writing to ask whether you
would be interested in syndicating your blog in the pages of our

I appreciate that Woo Hoo may not be quite the target market that you
had considered when you began writing, but rest assured that it is

entirely possible for work such as yours to sit comfortably alongside all of
the other articles currently published by our magazine (these include
the famous "Aunty Morticia's Lingerie Advice" and "Cor What A Scorcher"
columns). Of course, we would require some minor editing to your

This editing would consist of purely cosmetic changes, with perhaps
some slight alterations in tone. For example, I note that your blog is
currently very light on swearing. I fully appreciate that you may be
uncomfortable with too much swearing, but the odd burst of profanity tends
to reassure our customers. Similarly, your tendency not to include any
car chases or explosions in your work detracts from the overall ethos of
our publication, and we would, of course, insist on such elements
being introduced.

Although the sketches that periodically appear on your blog are well
executed, I fear that their content may be slightly too highbrow for some
of our readers. We would prefer it, therefore, if you could have your
sketch characters make more use of words like "boobs" and "busty", and
include fewer literary allusions, as most of these are likely to simply

confuse our readers. Likewise, if the photography that appears could
be replaced with pictures of cars, fighter jets and football players, we
would be considerably happier.

Lastly, as most of our customers have yet to read a book that they
could not roll up and use to swat a fly, I would be more comfortable about
syndicating your work if it contained fewer references to books
entirely. Perhaps replacing this element of your content with references to
the latest bands, TV shows (I hear that Skins produces particularly good
material) and Die Hard movies would increase your work's appeal.

I am sure that you will jump at the chance to see your name in print in
our distinguished publication, and as such I look forward eagerly to
hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Alexander Garner

Chief submissions editor, Woo Hoo Magazine

I tracked down which 'friend' was 'Alex'... you can track him down here....